Confounding his critics, Berri plays pivotal role in Lebanon

At first sight, Nabih Berri seems an unlikely man to be leading the Shiite Muslim resurgence in Lebanon. The leader of the main Shiite militia, Amal, Mr. Berri has worked his way assiduously to the top in a movement whose upper councils are strongly democratic by Mideast standards. In that, he is unusual among Lebanese leaders, most of whom -- including Amin Gemayel and Walid Jumblatt -- stepped into the shoes of their fathers or brothers.

Not much more than a year ago, Israel and its right-wing Christian allies in Lebanon regarded Berri's downfall as a foregone conclusion.

``The Israelis don't have to do a thing,'' said a Christian political source. ``They just have to sit there in south Lebanon and show up the empty posturing of the Beirut government in general, and Berri's impotence in particular.''

Berri had insisted on holding a new, special portfolio responsible for the south in the Syrian-backed ``national unity'' government formed in April 1984. His enemies felt he had constructed his own trap and walked right into it.

Berri has been under constant pressure to justify his participation in the government to the more radical Shiite elements. For awhile it looked as though he might be outflanked by extremist groups.

The fiery brand of Islamic revolution of Hizbullah (Party of God) appealed to radicalized and jobless Shiite slum-dwellers. Such factions had more money and were widely believed to enjoy financial sponsorship from Iran. Amal, however, which preaches Lebanese nationalism with a Shiite tinge, has generally managed to avoid accepting patronage -- and obligations -- from any outside quarter.

But by mobilizing the infrastructure built up since the mid-1970s and directing it at the Israeli occupiers, Berri was able to take a large share of the credit in Shiite and other Lebanese eyes for ousting the Israelis. Now it is he who is riding high on the crest of the Shiite wave, while the Israelis and Christians are too busy cutting their losses to recall their dismissive predictions of a year ago.

Staying on top of that wave, however, is no easy task. The Shiite resurgence has been long pent up and inevitably strains simultaneously in different directions. It is subject to conflicting cross-currents from the region, especially Iran. Observers have no doubt that within the spectrum of Shiite politics, Berri is a moderate and a pragmatist -- but even he cannot prevent the center shifting in radical directions and has to trim his own course accordingly.

The Shiites are odd men out among the Lebanese communities because, unlike the Druze, Maronite Christians, and other key players, they do not enjoy a natural demographic canton. Hence Lebanese nationalism and unification are for Berri not just theoretical political positions, but a reflection of the needs of a community scattered across large and disconnected tracts of Lebanon's poorest terrain. Obtaining a fair share of the cake in a reunified and prosperous Lebanon makes more sense for the Shiites than trying to go it alone.

Born into a family of Lebanese 'emigr'es to West Africa, Berri studied in the United States. His first wife was American. But the awakening Lebanese Shiite movement has not resented leaders coming in from the outside. Imam Musa Sadr, who founded Amal during the 1975-76 civil war, himself came to Lebanon from Iran.

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